Despite repeated efforts to bring predictability and consistency to temporary support awards, that goal remains elusive. Consider the December, 2017 decision of the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Rouis v. Rouis.

The parties were married in 1993 and had two children. After the husband departed the marital residence, the wife commenced this action for divorce in 2014. Applying the pre-2015 temporary maintenance formula on the wife’s motion for temporary relief, Sullivan County Supreme Court Justice Mary MacMaster Work granted the wife, among other things, temporary maintenance ($1,958 per month) and child support ($2,720 per month) and required the husband to pay for the carrying costs and upkeep of the marital home ($4,859 per month), private school for the youngest child ($848 per month), health insurance for the family ($1,921 per month), interim counsel fees ($10,000) and the wife’s vehicle and fuel costs ($644 per month). The husband appealed.

Recognizing that the combined monthly awards amounted to an annual award of $155,400 plus $10,000 in interim counsel fees, to be paid from the husband’s annual gross income of $183,300.50 (the wife’s pre-award income was $11,700.00), the Third Department agreed that the temporary awards were excessive and should be modified.

The appellate court noted that the (pre-2015) temporary maintenance formula resulted in a presumptive monthly temporary maintenance amount of $4,387.50. Justice Work also granted the wife’s request that the husband also pay the $4,859 in expenses, including the mortgage, taxes, utilities, insurance and upkeep. Justice Work recognized that it would not be equitable to require the husband to pay full maintenance, child support and all carrying costs on the marital home, and therefor essentially credited the husband for one half of the carrying costs on the home ($2,429.50 per month) by reducing the presumptive maintenance award by that amount, resulting in a temporary maintenance award of $1,958 per month. The lower court also ordered the husband to pay the full monthly carrying costs on the home ($4,859) in which he did not reside. The appellate court noted that when the wife’s vehicle expenses were added ($644 per month), the total combined monthly award was $7,461, plus tuition ($848 per month) and child support. The net effect of Supreme Court’s order was that the husband was ordered to pay the full presumptive maintenance award plus one half of the carrying costs on the home and the wife’s vehicle expenses.

Continue Reading Do Temporary Support Awards Include Marital Residence Expenses?

Where the results of a 2007 prenuptial agreement waiver of maintenance would be a risk that a mother of three children would become a public charge, the agreement would be set aside for being unconscionable at the time of divorce. So held the Appellate Division, Second Department, in its January 10, 2018 decision in Taha v. Elzemity.

The parties were married in 2007, and had three children. Shortly before their marriage, they entered into a prenuptial agreement. The agreement provided, inter alia, that each party waived the right to the other’s separate property in the event of separation or divorce; each party would keep separate bank accounts; and the husband’s maintenance obligation would be limited to a lump sum payment of $20,000.

In 2008, the parties moved into the marital residence, which was purchased with funds from the husband’s bank account, and the deed and mortgage were placed solely in his name.

The husband had been practicing medicine since 1987 and earned approximately $300,000 annually. The wife, who had been employed part-time as a sales person when the parties met, did not work outside the home during the marriage, but dedicated herself to the care of the household and the parties’ children, one with special needs.

In October 2013, the husband commenced this divorce action. The wife moved to set aside the prenuptial agreement, among other grounds, because it was unconscionable. The husband cross-moved for summary judgment determining that the prenuptial agreement was valid and enforceable. After a hearing, Supreme Court, Richmond County Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico found that the prenuptial agreement was not unconscionable. The wife appealed.

The Second Department reversed. It noted that:

An agreement between spouses or prospective spouses should be closely scrutinized, and may be set aside upon a showing that it is unconscionable, or the result of fraud, or where it is shown to be manifestly unfair to one spouse because of overreaching on the part of the other spouse.

Further, the Court stated, “an agreement is unconscionable if it is one which no person in his or her senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand, and no honest and fair person would accept on the other, the inequality being so strong and manifest as to shock the conscience and confound the judgment of any person of common sense.” Moreover:

An agreement that might not have been unconscionable when entered into may become unconscionable at the time a final judgment would be entered.

Here, the appellate court held that the wife met her burden of proof as to unconscionability. Contrary to the lower court’s determination, the wife established that the prenuptial agreement was, at the time this action was before the court, unconscionable.

Enforcement of the agreement would result in the risk of the wife’s becoming a public charge. The wife, who was unemployed, largely without assets, and the primary caregiver for the parties’ young children, would, under the prenuptial agreement, receive only $20,000, in full satisfaction of all claims, even though the husband earns approximately $300,000 annually as a physician. Accordingly, the wife’s motion to set aside the prenuptial agreement should have been granted.

Catherine S. Bridge, of Staten Island, represented the wife. Arnold E. DiJoseph, P.C., of Manhattan, of counsel to Kuharski, Levitz & Giovinazzo, represented the husband.

When negotiating a divorce settlement agreement, the parties should agree on whether or not all child support-related rights and obligations must be redetermined in the event the periodic basic child support obligation is modified.

Take the recent Appellate Division, Second Department, decision in Walsh v. Walsh. There the parties’ settlement agreement was incorporated, but not merged into their 2014 judgment of divorce. Under that agreement, the father was to pay $500 per month in child support.

After the parties divorced, the father began collecting Social Security benefits in addition to his salary, which caused his income to increase by more than 15%. In their agreement, the parties did not opt out of allowing the court to modify the support order, without requiring a party to allege or demonstrate a substantial change in circumstances, where either party’s gross income changed by 15% or more since the order was entered or modified. The mother petitioned for an upward modification of the father’s child support obligation.

Family Court Suffolk County Support Magistrate Kathryn L. Coward granted the upward modification on the basis of the father’s increased income. Calculating the father’s child support obligation under the Child Support Standards Act, the Magistrate awarded the mother $2,074 per month in child support.

The father objected to the Support Magistrate’s order. Family Court Judge Matthew G. Hughes denied the father’s objections. The father appealed. The Second Department affirmed.

Continue Reading Are The Various Types of Child Support Benefits Interrelated?

It is common for the parents of young children when entering a divorce settlement agreement to defer until the children approach college age the determination of the parents’ obligations to contribute. The language chosen to express that deferral may be significant.

The recent decision of the Appellate Division, Second Department, in Conroy v. Hacker, lets us know the agreement language is significant. But we are left asking what would have happened without it.

In Conroy, the parties were married in 1991 and were the parents of two children. Their 1999 divorce judgment incorporated, but did not merge, a 1998 separation agreement. As relevant here, the separation agreement stated:

The parties are not making any specific provisions for the payment of college expenses which may be incurred on behalf of the infant children because of the tender age of said children as of the date of this Agreement. The parties do, however, acknowledge an obligation on each of their parts to contribute to the children’s future college expenses in accordance with their financial abilities at that time.

Continue Reading Enforcing the Divorce Settlement Agreement To Defer Fixing College Obligations

Two recent decisions of the Appellate Division, Second Department, have upheld maintaining a father’s child support obligations despite alleged changes to the nature of the relationship with the child.

in Lovaglio v. Wagner, the father contended that the parties’ then 20-year-old daughter had moved in with him when she entered college. Previously, the daughter resided with the mother in New Jersey since she was 5 years old. However, the father claimed that she began residing with him full-time in Brooklyn after she enrolled in a college in Manhattan during the winter 2015 semester.

After a hearing, Support Magistrate John M. Fasone held that the father failed to establish that the daughter’s residence had changed and denied the father’s petitions to terminate his child support obligation and to receive child support from the mother. In its November 22, 2017 decision, the Second Department affirmed the order of Kings County Family Court Judge Judith Waksberg that had denied the father’s objections to Magistrate Fasone’s order.

Continue Reading Child Support Obligations Do Not Automatically Result Upon Relationship Changes

With litigation so expensive, what claims between former spouses may be heard in small claims court?

In this small claims action, the former wife sought to recover $2,500 from her former husband because he allegedly wrongful retained health insurance reimbursement checks. The wife alleged that she, rather than the ex-husband, had paid the sums to her health providers for which the ex-husband had been reimbursed.

The ex-husband moved to dismiss the small claims action, claiming that the ex-wife’s claims were within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and Family Court. In addition, the ex-husband claimed that, based on the Supreme Court judgment in the parties’ matrimonial action, the ex-wife, whose two prior small claims actions had been dismissed, was precluded from bringing this action under the doctrine of res judicata.

In an order dated November 6, 2015, Nassau County District Court Judge Paul L. Meli, granted the ex-husband’s motion to dismiss this action, concluding that small claims court lacked jurisdiction and that the matter in issue had, in any event, been previously litigated.

Continue Reading Small Claims Court Has Jurisdiction to Determine Claim Between Former Spouses

In addition to providing a guideline for the amount of a maintenance (alimony) award, New York’s relatively new maintenance (alimony) statute includes a presumptive range for the period of time maintenance is to be paid based upon the length of the marriage. Particularly with short marriages, what should be the impact of the length of the marriage on the award of maintenance while the divorce action is pending? Put differently, should a spouse be able to increase support, just by keeping the divorce action going?

In her August 31, 2017 decision in Barlik v. Barlik, Acting Queens County Supreme Court Justice Elisa S. Koenderman was faced with that issue.

Among the temporary relief sought by the parties in this divorce action, the parties husband cross-moved for exclusive use and occupancy of the marital residence. The wife moved, in part, for temporary maintenance and child support and for an order directing the husband to pay 100% of the carrying costs of the marital residence; an order appointing a forensic accountant to value the income from the husband’s business as well as a real estate appraiser to value the marital residence, both at the husband’s expense; and for counsel fees.

Justice Koenderman first denied the husband’s motion for exclusive use and occupancy, but granted the wife’s cross-motion for exclusive use and occupancy of the marital residence.

The Court then granted the wife’s motion for temporary maintenance and child support. As required by the statute, the court calculated the guideline amount by applying the statutory formula to the payor’s income up to the statutory cap of $178,000 (see DRL § 236[B][5-a][b][5] & [6]). Then, the court may adjust the guideline amount of temporary maintenance if it is “unjust or inappropriate” (DRL § 236[B][5-a][h][1]). The court must consider certain enumerated factors, including but not limited to the health and age of the parties; the present or future earning capacity of the parties; and care of children during the marriage that inhibits a party’s earning capacity, as well as any other factor which it finds just and proper to determine “whether and to what extent it will apply the statutory formula” to the payor’s income which exceeds the statutory cap.

Continue Reading Considering the Length of the Marriage and Other Factors on Temporary Support Awards

It may be difficult to reconcile two recent decisions of the Appellate Division, Second Department, as they relate to awards of interest on delayed equitable distribution payments due under a divorce stipulation of settlement. The first raises questions as to the impact of failing to expressly include the payment obligations in the judgment of divorce as opposed to merely incorporating the stipulation by reference. The second decision raises questions as to the date from which interest should run.

In O’Donnell v. O’Donnell, the parties had entered into a stipulation of settlement of their divorce action in March, 2014. Among other terms, the stipulation obligated the husband to “pay the Wife a lump sum of $1,000,000 on or before September 30, 2014.”

The judgment of divorce, entered in March, 2015, incorporated, but did not merge the stipulation. At the time the judgment was entered, the husband had not paid the $1,000,000 distributive award.

After the entry of the divorce judgment, and by order to show cause issued June 5, 2015, the ex-wife moved, inter alia, to compel the ex-husband to execute a confession of judgment, or in the alternative, for leave to enter a money judgment against him in the principal sum of $1,000,000 plus interest at the statutory rate of 9% per annum.

In opposition to the motion, the husband produced the confession of judgment he signed in March, 2014, which rendered academic the branch of the motion which was to compel him to execute a confession of judgment. The confession of judgment made no provision for interest.

The husband stated that he paid the $1,000,000 in full on June 19, 2015 (two weeks after the order to show cause was issued). He claimed that he had been unable to pay the $1,000,000 until that time because he had to secure those funds by mortgaging the real properties which remained in his name.

Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey A. Goodstein denied the wife’s motion for an award of statutory interest on the $1,000,000, because the stipulation of settlement did not provide for such interest. The wife appealed.

Continue Reading Interest on Asset Payments Due Under Divorce Stipulation of Settlement

If the IRS determines that as between spouses only one is liable for a tax debt, should that finding be binding on a divorce court determination as to whether the marital tax debt should be allocated to only one spouse?

Married couples who choose to file a joint tax return are jointly and severally liable for the tax and any additions to tax, interest, or penalties that arise from the joint return, even if they later divorce. Joint and several liability means that each taxpayer is legally responsible for the entire liability. Thus, both spouses on a married filing jointly return are generally held responsible for all the tax due even if one spouse earned all the income or claimed improper deductions or credits. This is also true even if a divorce decree states that a former spouse will be responsible for any amounts due on previously filed joint returns.

In some cases, however, a spouse can get relief from being jointly and severally liable. Such “Innocent Spouse Relief” relieves a spouse from additional tax owed if based upon the other spouse’s failure to report income, improper reporting of income, or the claiming of improper deductions or credits.

In order to qualify for Innocent Spouse Relief:

  • The understatement of tax (deficiency) must be solely attributable to the other spouse’s erroneous item (omitted income, or incorrectly reported deductions, credits, or property basis);
  • The innocent spouse must establish that at the time the joint return was signed the spouse didn’t know, and had no reason to know, that there was an understatement of tax; and
  • taking into account all the facts and circumstances, it would be unfair to hold the innocent spouse liable for the understatement of tax.

Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico, in her August 29, 2017 Richmond County (Staten Island) Supreme Court opinion in S.M. v. M.R. (the subject of last week’s blog post on the effect of an attorney retainer agreement cap), appeared to hold that a Tax Court innocent spouse finding should, conclusively, result in the equitable distribution of the entire tax debt to the other spouse.

Continue Reading IRS Innocent Spouse Relief’s Impact on Equitable Distribution in Divorce

In a lengthy, thoughtful August 29, 2017 opinion in S.M. v. M.R., Richmond County (Staten Island) Supreme Court Justice Catherine M. DiDomenico resolved the financial issues incident to the parties’ divorce. Among the issues were those that arose from parties’ family and financial ties to Egypt, the absence of proof on various financial matters, and the wife’s 1999 medical degree in Egypt, all but abandoned since moving to the United States in 2002 resulting in her current need for rehabilitative maintenance.

The final issue tackled by the Court was the wife’s request for an award of counsel fees in the sum of $43,000 for her attorney’s handling of the entirety of this divorce proceeding. The wife based her claim upon the fact that she was the non-monied spouse in this action (D.R.L. §237[a]). In support of her claim, the wife submitted a copy of her attorneys’ retainer agreement, together with legal billing.

The husband objected to any award on the basis of the language of that retainer agreement: the wife and her attorney had agreed to “cap” counsel fees at the sum of $10,000.

You agree to pay Your Attorney for legal services at the rate of $250.00 per billable hour and $750.00 per each half-day appearance in Court by Steven Scavuzzo Esq. The foregoing rates are valid for services rendered in calendar years 2013 and 2014. In the event that such rates are modified you will be advised and requested to execute an amendment reflecting the new rates. Legal fees in this matter shall be capped at $10,000, not including costs, disbursements, post-judgment enforcement and any appeal You wish to pursue.”

The husband argued that this cap should inure to his benefit; that as the wife can never be charged more than $10,000 for the divorce proceeding, as a matter of law he cannot be responsible for any more than that amount. The wife’s attorney should be prohibited from seeking an award of counsel fees by the clear language of his own retainer agreement

Continue Reading Husband Benefits From Wife’s Retainer Agreement Cap On Counsel Fees